Sunday, September 11, 2011

It's not just the hoarding that hurts

In thinking back over my childhood, I'm just now starting to distinguish between which of my mother's damaging behaviors stemmed from the hoarding and which came from her mood disorder. Growing up, we never talked about what went on with my mother. We never really even talked about the hoarding, unless someone was coming over to visit. Then we didn't talk so much as embark on a marathon cleaning session so no one would know how bad it really was. Piles of things would get shoved into my parents' room and into the garage. Since the doors were kept shut, a lot of the mess was kept hidden from any outsiders who might judge.

It wasn't so simple to hide the fact that my mother struggled with severe depression. She would go for awhile being, in psychological parlance, a "good enough" mother. The dishes might or might not get done, but we'd have some kind of predictability about our days. She'd spend time with us doing fun projects or taking us to museums or other educational places. I was never certain, though, when the other shoe was going to drop -- when she would go from being "good enough" to unable to get out of bed, crying all the time, lashing out at us kids that we made her life "a living hell." Her paranoia that people were telling lies about her, her refusal to let us play outside because the world was filled with dangers and bad people who might hurt us, her jealousy of our having friends outside the house or of loving adults other than her -- those didn't come from hoarding. After this time spent crying in bed or moving slowly around the house under a dark cloud, her behavior would change again. Suddenly, she would be cheerful and full of energy. She'd start several new projects that we kids all knew would never get finished. She never realized that, though, and would stay up all night to work on them, sometimes for several nights in a row. She'd go on spending sprees, buying bags of gifts or clothing for us or for friends. After awhile, she would cycle back down to being our regular mom -- until she got depressed again and the cycle started once more.

I didn't realize until I was in college and going to a therapist that her other behaviors, the hyped-up/talking too fast/shopping spree/up all night phases likely mean that she was struggling with bipolar disorder and not simple depression. Growing up with a mother whose moods and treatment of her children varied so wildly, independent of anything we had done, meant that I grew up with the sense that the world is an unstable and unsafe place. Couple that with the damaging behavior around the hoard -- the things that looked like trash to us were such valuable treasures to her, things that seemed even more important than we were -- meant that growing up, I often questioned my own sanity and view of reality.

Many parents with compulsive hoarding also have another mental illness, whether it is OCD, severe depression, schizophrenia, or something else. It's very common for families not to talk about it, as mine didn't. If we were lucky, at some point someone explained to us children of hoarders that our parents have an illness that is in no way our fault. If we're very lucky, and willing to work through all that we've experienced, we'll be able to realize that the craziness isn't part of us at all. It doesn't need to define us. It isn't who we are.

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